There are three of them today, the blonde, the brunette and the new one – striped pink. Not that their hair has anything to do with the quickening of Gina’s pulse.
So she tells herself, as she turns the corner from the bus stop and sees the girls loitering on her street.
Gina doesn’t think they actually live here. She moved in a couple of months ago and they weren’t around for the first six weeks. But this evening the blonde and the new girl are sitting on the low wall belonging to one of Gina’s neighbours, kicking their skinny legs back and forth. The brunette looms over them, talking urgently. Her gel-nails and burning cigarette dance through the grainy dusk.
Gina can’t hear what the brunette’s saying, but as she walks closer, she catches her tone. It’s surprisingly deep, almost a growl – it cuts off abruptly at Gina’s approach. Just like yesterday, she’s greeted by silence. The girls turn to her; they stare.
They are nothing but eyes then – pale, shining eyes – made brighter by their smudged black liner and spidery fake lashes.
And once again, the brunette, her sallow face inclined, won’t step aside to allow Gina to pass – and what can Gina do except keep going? She stumbles over the curb, too aware of her shallow breathing and the hollow clop of her stupid heels.
She doesn’t stop, though their gaze intensifies. She feels it, cold, on her suited shoulders, and prickling the nape of her neck. She couldn’t glance back even if she tried.
But her house is only, what – twelve, ten steps away, and the keys are right there, in her jacket pocket. This fear – she’s being absurd.
Still, up until the last moment, Gina keeps determinedly to the road. She keeps her head bowed too, looking with a kind of tunnel-vision towards the gutter. It’s choked with rotting leaves.
When Gina first viewed the house, the street’s few trees, though young and scrappy, were an eager yellowish green. But now the weather’s turned abruptly, autumn’s come in fast.
The little park nearby looks ravaged, everything about it battered and grey. Before she moved in, it had felt promising; she’d thought about taking up jogging. A fresh life, she’d imagined – a fresh Gina – to go with the new house and job.
But it isn’t just the cold that’s kept her away from the park. In the local paper, there are endless reports about the gangs that gather there. Tales of toddlers caught playing with used syringes, an elderly couple attacked in broad daylight…
Thankfully, inside, the house remains everything she hoped for, properly grown-up, neatly organised, painted white throughout. Wiping a cloth over the glossy kitchen counters, Gina reminds herself how lucky she is – a move to a major city, leaving all the old, safe things behind… But surely the girls aren’t really threatening – just pretending to be; isn’t that part of being young?
Not that Gina’s exactly ancient; thirty’s still six months away. So it’s not hard to recall her own adolescence – those brief summer weeks she spent with Mandy, half-bored and half-excited, wandering around Mandy’s estate.
It’s only because the nights have started arriving early that Gina marches from room to room, drawing curtains and snapping on lights. Back in the kitchen, her reflection is smiling bravely, caught in the sink’s scrubbed silver glare.
But even with the blinds shut tight, she can’t help thinking about the street’s shadows. She imagines them untangling, creeping close.
And the next day, returning, exhausted, from the bus stop, there are no longer three of them, but four.
The fourth girl’s head is shaved, an army haircut, and it’s not just her watching eyes that glitter. Her ears are brightly punctured; studs wink in her lips and nose.
But her clothes are as nondescript as the others’. While they all wear the same ultra-tight jeans, with slices of skin and bony kneecaps flashing through their uniform rips, their long, lean torsos are either bloated by bag-like sweatshirts or else painfully exposed in flimsy vests.
They might be as young as twelve, or older than sixteen, Gina honestly finds it impossible to tell. The fact that tonight they’re drinking as well as smoking indicates nothing. They’d have ways to get around that.
From the outset, Gina avoids the pavement. Although instead of crossing to the other side – feeling that’s somehow too definite a statement – she walks straight along the centre of the empty road. And despite their icy gaze licking over her, she stiffens her spine and holds her head high. She looks only directly ahead.
But then there’s a loud metallic clatter and she can’t stop herself from turning. A crumpled can of cheap lager lies on the tarmac just behind her – though surely the girls weren’t intending it to hit her?
Their gleaming eyes are aimed straight at her – that singular, glacier glare – but if Gina had been a serious target, she’s certain they wouldn’t have missed.
And as she moves on, she refuses to hurry – not until she hears their laughter reeling after her, harsh snarls that rapidly spiral, becoming high-pitched howls.
After midnight, it’s their laughter that wakes her, though when she first burst into consciousness, she’d mistaken the sounds for screams. Help – get help, she’d thought, as she fumbled for the lamp. But even with the bedroom crashing in brightly around her, for several panicking seconds, she couldn’t quite remember where – or who – she was.
Now she sits cocooned in her duvet, trying not to listen – listening, anyway. Her head throbs, her thoughts are spinning, but they aren’t solely about the girls.
In general, things aren’t going as she’d hoped here. It’s taking Gina longer than she’d imagined making connections, let alone friends. At work, everyone’s frighteningly professional and, aside from the odd shadow fluttering a net curtain, she hasn’t seen a single genuine neighbour.
Loneliness hits her alongside the girls’ laughter. It keeps rising, wave after wave.
But though Gina has to battle everything tearing through her, she can’t afford to come completely apart. Within minutes, she’s wiping her nose on the duvet’s thick cotton. The shuddering will soon subside.
It’ll be okay, she tells herself. You can do this. Just keep focused – remember these things take time. The estate agent told her the street’s residents were quiet, mainly elderly, and that’s hardly their fault; they might even be housebound. And it’s not surprising Gina’s colleagues are wary; her position’s so much higher than it was in her previous job. But she’ll keep trying – you’ve got this. Tomorrow she’ll knock on a neighbour’s door, she’ll bring cupcakes into work.
There’s no way the isolation can go on like this. Back in her hometown, Gina was known for her kindness and her optimism; doesn’t everybody warm to her in the end?
Well, everyone, except Mandy – when Gina’s parents changed her school, deciding to go private, Mandy cut Gina off overnight. The memory of how Mandy looked at her afterwards rises, unbidden – and, outside, something shatters.
But Gina can’t allow herself to become sidetracked. The stuff with Mandy – they were just kids.
And surely there are things she could be doing about the noises, adult, responsible things. Even if she can’t bring herself to go out and confront the girls, she could call the police, or maybe the council. Don’t they have a hotline for situations like this?
But Gina’s phone isn’t working. The uneven signal is the only flaw inside the house, though at some point that will change too. The company has promised…
Patience, Gina reminds herself, setting the phone down and sinking back into her covers, gathering the soft pillow around her ears. The shrieking will stop eventually; she’ll just have to wait them out.
On the bus, watching the rain lash the darkening windows, she’d thought that the weather might keep them away. The hope filled Gina in a way that shamed her; she’d been trying not to think about the girls all day.
Of course, she had failed, and it hadn’t helped anything. Alone in the kitchen at work, she’d caught herself picturing them, fighting back tears as she made the whole office tea.
The small, chilly room didn’t help either. In her old job, the kitchen was a place to gather and gossip and giggle – laughter had been so easy for Gina, back then.
It was down to the girls that those happy times already felt faded, though it was scarcely three months ago. And surely it was because of the girls that when she took the mugs through to her colleagues, their surprised smiles had seemed more like smirks.
And she was wrong about the rain. Turning the corner, peering out from her umbrella, there are too many girls for Gina to count.
They’re clustering in groups from one end of the street to the other, spilling off both pavements and into the road. But, with her umbrella held so close that its spokes catch her hair, Gina forces her feet onwards, weaving between them, though all she wants to do is to turn and run.
The girls, their hair slick, their skin glimmering, jostle one another, sharing bottles and lighters. They push and they pull and they shout.
But as Gina passes each group, their yells and whoops die and against their silence – as bad as their laughter – Gina clings to the sound of the rain drumming against her umbrella. She’s clutching the handle so tightly her knuckles have turned white.
Up ahead, near her house, she glimpses the brunette and the blond one. They’re standing so close to each other she thinks they’re kissing, but then they step apart. As they break away, something flashes silver between them. But it’s just a phone screen, Gina tells herself – it can’t actually be a knife.
Still, it’s excruciating to walk past them. They’re standing less than five feet from Gina’s front door. And though as usual they say nothing as she hurries around them, when she reaches her step, she thinks she feels a dark rushing coming fast behind her. The key’s shaking. For whole seconds it won’t fit the lock.
But then it does, it’s turning, and Gina’s staggering inside. She hardly glances back, even as she slams the door, so she can’t be certain if the brunette’s really standing right there, in the rain, behind her, eyes as bright as the shine in her hand.
But Gina does see something as she lowers the umbrella. Between the raindrops beading the fabric, there’s a thick clot of frothy bubbles – unmistakeably saliva.
She throws the umbrella onto the hall tiles, feeling suddenly, helplessly young. And she pictures Mandy the last time she saw her – the disgust in her drilling gaze. As if Mandy could see deep into Gina, locating a terrible emptiness hidden at her core…
And in the night, the girls are louder than ever. Words split out of their cacophony – “Bitch, bitch, bitch” – a rising chant.
But it’s hardly likely it’s directed at Gina.
Please, she prays, not me.
She takes a taxi home from the office on Friday.
She has to raise her voice to talk to the driver; she dug out her old iPod the previous night. “I’m just too tired to face the bus,” she tells him. It isn’t completely a lie.
Around dawn, when Gina finally managed to drop off to her nostalgic playlist, her sleep was broken by dreams. Nightmares where the house was blazing around her, its white walls bubbling and then blackening, girls fluttering with the spitting, red flames.
Throughout the day, those girls have kept returning, forcing her to strain over her monitor, flickering with the ceiling’s harsh strip-lights.
Obviously, the cab isn’t all about Gina’s exhaustion; she’d planned for it to take her right up to her door. But as soon as the car turns onto her street, she sits up straighter, leans forward and stares.
“It’s okay,” she says. “It’s fine. You can drop me here.”
The street looks deserted. The only sign of life is the occasional lit window, glowing softly through the dusk.
Once she’s paid and the taxi has left her, Gina stands for a moment, listening to nothing but her harmless pop tunes, feeling the easy rhythm of her breaths. It’s the start of the weekend – that up until now, she has been dreading – and she supposes she shouldn’t be surprised that the girls have found somewhere better to party. Still, the relief is acute.
Ahead, only Gina’s house is waiting for her. She takes in the lemon squares of the lights that she left on. And as she starts walking – strolling – towards them, her grinning mouth trembles. She’s teary, flooded with warmth.
There’s immense satisfaction in the sound of her heels on the pavement, tapping in time to her cheesy old pop songs, as she passes through the shadows of her neighbours’ houses. Again, she resolves she’ll drop in on them tomorrow, but for tonight, she’ll keep walking leisurely home.
Home, she thinks, my home now, taking the keys from her jacket pocket.
But the moment she touches her fingertips to the door, it opens. Her house is already unlocked.
And though the hall light remains lemony, washing out over her, it feels stained with the stink from within. Sweat and cheap, oversweet perfume, sticky lager and cigarette smoke – the smells hit her before their laughter. Even as Gina’s ripping out her ear-buds, their cries don’t fully register and in shock she stumbles onwards, as if pulled, into her favourite room.
The girls are all over the kitchen. They’re sprawled on the floor and sitting on the counters, shot-gunning cans – there’s a pale arc of spray through the cigarette haze. A couple, half-stripped, seem to be dancing to the sound of their own spluttering; the blond one’s throwing up in the sink. The brunette crouches before the open fridge and even when she turns, she doesn’t stop laughing, though there’s a slice of ham hanging out of her mouth.
There’s no sudden silence for Gina this evening. Instead, as soon as they see her, the girls are upon her, shrieking, “Who are you? What are you doing inside our house?”
Megan Taylor is the author of three dark novels, How We Were Lost (Flame Books, 2007), The Dawning (Weathervane Press, 2010) and The Lives of Ghosts (Weathervane Press, 2012), as well as a short story collection, The Woman Under the Ground (Weathervane Press, 2014).